Despite strikes and chaos we managed to secure a ticket for the ferry to Piraeus departing the next day. We bought cheap seats on the deck for the 3 day crossing. The crossing was calm and we relaxed and sunbathed and we slept in the almost deserted lounge.
Piraeus is the port for Athens, and a busy and jolly place it was as we wheeled our bike onto the quay at dusk. The streets were festooned with fairy lights and Christmas carols were piped around the town, 2 days before Christmas and the celebrations were in full swing. We found a slightly dirty but convenient camp site and settled in.
“In Greece we’re too poor to go to psychiatrists- we have friends instead.”
Having no funds at this stage we started to think seriously about getting some work. The campsite overlooked a very fancy yacht marina, so the next day we wandered down to the yacht club to offer our services at the restaurant. They agreed they could use us, the marina was full of rich Europeans looking for some Christmas cheer, and we returned that evening for a 6 hour shift of peeling garlic and washing up mountains of plates.
Not the most glamorous, and for peanuts, drachma 500 or £3.50 each, but beggars can’t be choosers, particularly illegally working ones, and they did feed us.
Half way through the service Dudley saw the chef in the courtyard squatting by an old fridge. He bounced out to see if he could help only to find her peeing down a drain.
A few hygiene warning bells should have rung. Next day was Christmas Day and they wanted us for 9 hours. There was a big party with all the glitterati. They had a huge warmer cabinet for snacks and the chef just kept throwing meatballs on top of old meatballs in a steaming pile at perfect incubation temperature. When the kitchen was quiet we each pinched a meatball. After all we had been surrounded by the things, and salivating, for 2 days.
At 11.00 pm we finished our shift and handed in our notice. Enough was enough and we shuffled our tired bodies back to the campsite to celebrate what was left of Christmas. Well our Christmas present was a raging bout of Montezuma's revenge which we experienced simultaneously on the dot of 2.00 am. I dread to think what the state of affairs was on all the fancy yachts that night!
After Christmas we walked the streets looking for our wheel. They managed to fix us up with a temporary back wheel which turned, but it was not going to last. There was no hope of a proper fix in all of Greece apparently. Much shrugging and eyebrow wiggling accompanied these pronouncements. We were stumped. Luckily my dad had contacts in Manchester Airport and we made a plan to fly a wheel in with one of the pilots. It would take time and would only arrive later in January.
We decided to spend New Year in Athens, surely a party was to be had in this ancient capital. We arranged to meet a few of the other travelers from the camp site at the steps of the Acropolis and then take the town by storm. The evening was clear and fine but remarkably quiet as we threaded our way through the streets. Where was the music and dancing and drunken carousing?
We enjoyed our cheap plonk and managed a bit of singing and dancing surrounded by the glorious ruins, but the atmosphere remained subdued. The bars closed early and not a party was to be found. Later we discovered that the tradition in Greece is to gamble on New Years Eve and that the outcome, win or lose, determines your fortune for the year ahead. Well what ever they were doing, it was firmly behind closed doors!
It was time to leave the big city. We needed a place to lay low and wait. Definitely not Athens which was a riot of fumes, chaos and crazy Greek drivers. We decided to cycle out towards Corinth to find a spot on the beach. The travellers grapevine reported good work opportunities picking oranges and lemons in that direction. The temporary wheel would get us there and back if we were careful.
We cycled the coast road overlooking the turquoise Aegean Sea. Camping was cheaper here but a bit rough and ready. We noticed that work for the Greeks seemed to constitute a small part of their day. Sitting around drinking coffee and chatting to your mates was a much more serious business. As a result the cleanliness and maintenance of the sites left something to be desired. We crossed the Corinth Canal and found ourselves in the small town of Almiri where our work enquiries led us to Spiros and Camping Poseidon.
Spiros and Camp Poseidon
Camping Poseidon was a sprawling campsite on a stretch of sandy beach. Spiros was in his 30s and the owner of the campsite. He was at the time living with a young Afrikaans girl called Renate who he had persuaded to come and clean for him. I think he was hoping for a few extracurricular services as well, but Renate was made of sterner stuff!
He explained his life philosophy quite clearly and without any guilt. He made enough money in summer that he did not feel the need to do any work any other time. When the summer season finished Spiros just shut up the restaurant and chalets and lounged around with his friends for the next 9 months. He first offered us a job to clean his kitchens. We took one look at the train smash of a kitchen where the old food had been left to harden and rot in the pots and declined the job.
Even we were not that desperate. It seemed he had just walked out of the place mid service on the last day of the season.
The chalets were in an equal squalor but he eventually offered us a small bungalow rent free if we cleaned it. A dirty job but once done it was a comfy spot and weatherproof.
He then brokered us out to the local farmers and builders for the next 2 months, picking oranges and lemons, painting and mixing concrete. Better paid than the marina kitchen and I am pretty sure he took a cut. Indeed on one job Dudley did, helping to throw a concrete slab, the rest of the workforce got wind of how little Spiros was paying and marched to the campsite to force him to double the wage. We were rolling in cash!
Spiros had an Afrikaans girlfriend who refused to be fully seduced by his "charms". We used to have long chats with this girl , in Afrikaans, about the state of the greek nation and the dangers of being a greek mans girl.
Our first regular job was in an orange orchard where we joined a workforce of about 10 people. The whole orchard needed to be stripped and every orange crated and loaded on trucks. The men stood on ladders with a cigarette in each hand and threw oranges all over the place. Except Dudley who had the job of hauling all the crates to the trucks.
The woman scrambled around to pick up the oranges thrown by the men and crate them. I had the job of crawling under the trees, in beds of nettles, to pick up rotting and wind fallen fruit. We could not understand why this rotten fruit was being packed with the good fruit until we were told that because of the EU subsidy there was an excess of oranges and the whole orchard was destined for a landfill site.
They got paid on weight so every orange counted. Madness. The Greek work ethic was very much on display. The men did as little as possible but the women worked like machines. They certainly looked worn out by their 30s and could not believe I was over the age of 16, let alone qualified as a doctor.
They treated us very kindly, we got 3 meals a day and a shot of 80% proof Ouzo to start the day. We dined on tiny fried fish and the most delicious olives. We were allowed all the oranges we could eat. It meant we could save almost all our money. Communication channels were a bit limited but we got by. The work was brutal physically so we slept well and developed an enviable level of fitness.
Dead as a Door Nail
One afternoon, as we were leaving the orchard, we were called away by the one girl who spoke broken German and told we must come and see the “verstorbene” and that she was afraid. Clueless as to what this involved, we shuffled off to the farmhouse and into the barn. There lay Grandpa in his best finery laid out on hay bales and dead as a door nail. Hopefully he had died of natural causes. We had to get him in his coffin and onto the back of the truck so we could wave him off down the road. The coffin lid was thrown in as an after thought.
We were often shown pictures of dead relatives in both Italian and Greek households. It was traditional to keep albums of the dear departed in their best togs looking rather Victorian. These pictures were prized much above any living pictures.
Fishing For Minnows
When we did not work we relaxed on the beach and tried to catch fish. This was frustratingly unsuccessful. We bought a fish in the market and cut it up, put it on hooks and lines and Dudley swam it out to sea. A few hours later he would swim out to retrieve the hooks only to find them empty. The fishermen on the pier watched this with obvious amusement, and it was only after about 2 weeks we realized that the fish they were catching were tiny, a fraction of the size of our bait fish. Nothing bigger was swimming in the Med after a few centuries of voracious Greek fish consumption. Essentially our efforts were feeding the little fish with zero chance of a successful strike.
We took gentle rides up the coast to Corinth and Epidavros, but we were careful not to put too much stress on the back wheel in case it gave in altogether. We sat in the local cafe and ate Taramasalata out of a jar while watching reruns of “Hart to Hart” with subtitles. We shared endless cups of coffee with Spiros and his friends. Mind you they were a bit disconcerted when we brewed them a mug. When you drink 30 cups a day like these guys you needed to drink it by the thimbleful not the mug.
The local brew was Retsina which was dirt cheap and sold out of the back door of the bar in plastic bottles. This is wine that has been preserved by the addition of pine resin. There were funnels tapped into all the pine trees in the surrounding forests collecting the resin. A bit of an acquired taste but affordable. I developed quite a liking for it, Dudley less so.
Finally the news came down that the wheel was arriving in Athens and we set out to retrace our steps back to the city to collect it. We spent a few days sight seeing in Athens and visited the Parthenon and Acropolis again, studied the museums and ate giant donuts and the best souvlakia.
We had VIP treatment at the airport and the wheel was duly handed over. The local bike shop fitted it for us and replaced the front rim. We were as good as new and excited to get back onto the road. We had enjoyed our little working holiday but were beginning to get restless again.
A Last Hurrah
We returned to Almiri to finish the harvest season. Our last job was stripping an olive tree. They use a special comb to bring down the olives. The tree was huge so the job required a head for heights and some tree climbing skills, and we labored over it for 2 days. On the third day the farmer pitched up with a chain saw and cut the tree down. Some sort of Greek logic there.
At last it was time to go. We left the village with a sack of home made olives tied to the pannier and ringing shouts of goodwill and godspeed. We had enjoyed our stay, the countryside was harshly beautiful, olive groves and pine forests clinging to rocky cliffs, but with glittering blue seas, dazzling white beaches and a wonderful quality of light. The people treated us well, with warmth and humor and a laid back lifestyle second to none. Apart from their allergy to work, their only other bad habit was the emptying of rubbish randomly next to the roads which led to an abundance of plastic bag trees.
Still you had to love them, just as you do a lazy, messy but incorrigibly cheeky teenager. They showed about the same level of civic responsibility. We toyed with the idea of swapping our bike for an old fishing boat and striking out to the islands, but ultimately the bike was our home, our transport and grounded us. There was no contest. Egypt was our next destination. In fact, I can let you into a secret, that was the real destination all along.
Total kilometers travelled 3901.
“A bicycle is the long-sought means of transportation for all of us who have runaway hearts.”
This may be the only true thing Lance Armstrong ever said!